In this video, Melinda Gates gives a very interesting talk at TEDxChange about following the model of Coca-Cola for social benefit programs. The ubiquitous, uniform nature of Coke is really part of their brand and they are serious about maintaining it. As a business focused on the bottom line and responsible to shareholders, they spend a lot of time learning how to increase sales and implementing new strategies.

Gates makes the point that Coke has a well-developed information feedback system. This helps them nimbly react to emerging situations in a targeted fashion. Yet, how many nonprofits or NGOs roll out their programs without any sort of continual review? Every step of a project can be a learning opportunity, but many intervention programs are simply set up and left to run their course. Evaluation only comes at the end.

She also points out that Coke taps into entrepreneurial talent in the areas they want to reach. This is something that nonprofits are only recently taking advantage of, but it has so much potential for creating sustainable program delivery systems. Nonprofits like Living Goods, Reach India and other microfranchisers are leading the way in creating self-sustaining, organically-spreading programs that improve people’s lives.

The last component of Coke’s success that Mrs. Gates talks about is marketing. Obviously, Coke is very good at this. This is such a critical aspect of a successful organization, it is a shame that many nonprofits don’t pay it due attention. It could be argued that all the actions that an organization takes are part of its brand; that marketing is everything. Nonprofits tend to think that marketing stops at fundraising. This belief overlooks the fact that the end recipients of their programs are also their clients – whether they are paying for those programs or not.

Nonprofit, NGO, for-profit business; call them what you will, they are all organizations that are looking to maximize the number of people they affect. Nonprofits need to be more aggressive and strategic in how they pursue the goal of widespread impact, or market penetration. As a corollary to this, philanthropies should demand more of the organizations that they fund. Foundations should vote with their dollars the way consumers do, which will lead the groups they fund to be increasingly more efficient.